Fairies, Spiritualism, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

With the recent adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes proliferating in television and film, I thought it would be interesting to see what works by Doyle could be found within the Rare Book Collection. The Rare Book Collection houses the Mary Shore Cameron Collection of Sherlock Holmes & Sherlockiana, which contains approximately 1,000 items related to Doyle’s famous detective, and has additional materials related to Doyle in other collections within the RBC.

Perusing the catalog, Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown caught my eye. I thought this would be a good starting point for understanding Doyle within the context of flourishing spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Left: The Edge of the Unknown (1930) | Murray 1023; Right: Essays on the state of psychical research, including an essay by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | Murray 1713

 

A collection of tales by Doyle with supernatural elements (such as the unicorn pictured here on the cover), published at the same time as his report on fairies (1922) | Murray 5485

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a full report of his investigation into the Cottingley fairies in 1922, The Coming of the Fairies, which you can read online here. In this book, he compiles evidence for the existence of fairies. (In case you were wondering, the sisters who created these alleged photos of fairies when they were 9 and 16 did finally admit to faking them in the 1980s.) Published in 1930, Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown collects his essays on a number of supernatural phenomena, including Doyle’s belief that Houdini’s magic was indeed supernatural, despite Harry Houdini’s attempts to convince him otherwise. Doyle notes that he himself has “no spiritual gifts […] and none of that psychic atmosphere which gives a tinge of romance to so many lives.” (Doyle 158). He did have encounters with the supernatural with the help of mediums, which he details in the chapter “Some Curious Personal Experiences.”

From here, I wanted to see what other materials on Doyle and fairies existed in the collection, when I stumbled upon Richard Doyle’s In Fairyland: a series of pictures from the Elf-World (1875). Richard Doyle was the uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and known for his illustration of the supernatural and the fantastic. As it turns out, an interest in fairies ran in the family, as his father, Charles Doyle (Richard Doyle’s brother), was also an illustrator known for his depiction of fairies.

Cover of Richard Doyle’s Fairyland | PR4004.A5 I5 1875

Page 9 of Richard Doyle’s Fairyland

Fairies were just one small part of the spiritualism that was sweeping the world at that time. Investigations into the paranormal were commonplace, leading to profuse publications on topics such as mesmerism, animal magnetism, and séances. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations of supernatural phenomena, and many publications from this society and other related materials can be found in the Rare Book Collection here at Wilson.

Just one shelf of many with materials related to spiritualism. These materials are part of the Yeats Collection.

If you are interested in learning more, these titles in the Rare Book Collection may be of interest:

Melchior Gorles; a tale of modern mesmerism (1867)The Peckster professorship: an episode in the history of psychical research (1888)The spirit-rapper; an autobiography (1854)Experiences in spiritualism with D.D. Home (1924)Light in the valley: my experiences of spiritualism (1857)Spiritualism: its history, phenomena and doctrine (1918)The Margery mediumship (1929)Mrs. Piper & the Society for psychical research (1903)The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns & fairies: a study in folk-lore & psychical research (1893)Hypnotism, animal magnetism, and hysteria: abstract of an address delivered at the Sheffield Philosophical Institute (1893)

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One Response to Fairies, Spiritualism, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. Nilofar Haja says:

    Fascinating piece, and not surprising to read about the rather contrarian worldviews that Doyle held: rigorous deduction and affinity toward the otherworldly. I think Doyle would claim that it was just a matter of time before science would have invented the instrument and mechanisms through which fairies and elves could be detected. After all, coexistence of all creatures is what makes the idea of the mystical so appealing. I am curious to know if there was any mention of demons or evil spirits or the nether side of the fairy world?

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